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Image: Rysher Entertainment

Film

Hard Eight at 25: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Stunning, Low-Key Debut 

When good luck is a long shot, you have to hedge your bets.

Revisiting Hard Eight

Everyone knows that Paul Thomas Anderson broke through, in the fall of 1997, with his 1970s porno opus Boogie Nights. But it was not, however, Andreson’s feature debut- that was Hard Eight, which after a Sundance debut in January of 1996 was released theatrically in February of the following year. That’s 25 years ago this week and just eight months before the arrival of Boogie Nights

When Boogie Nights was released, Anderson was 27 years old and had directed just one feature film, which had been seen by almost no one. For a director of that age and stature to be given the chance to write and direct a relatively high-budgeted movie, with a more than two-and-a-half-hour running time, much less one about the pornography world, is something that it’s hard to imagine happening these days. 

That is, perhaps, a testament to the strength of Hard Eight, which was titled Sydney during its development.

 The story goes that the director based the film on his earlier short film Cigarettes & Coffee. The film was acquired by the now-defunct distributor Rysher Entertainment, who recut it. But Anderson fought for his version, which ultimately carried the day, even raising money from his actors. 

Hard Eight film review
Image: Rysher Entertainment

Hard Eight isn’t nearly on the level of the masterpieces Anderson would create later (I’d apply that term to Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Inherent Vice, and Licorice Pizza). It’s much quieter than Boogie Nights, with a low-key score from long-time Anderson collaborators Jon Brion and Michael Penn.  But it showed a young filmmaker still finding his voice but showing much potential. 

The film is mostly about the characters of Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and John (John C. Reilly.) Sydney, a suit-clad professional gambler who we learn has some history as a criminal, happens on John, homeless outside a diner, and decides to take John under his wing and show him the ropes of the Las Vegas gambling trade. 

Later, in Reno, we’re introduced to a waitress/hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold type (Gwyneth Paltrow, near the start of her career), and a “security consultant” with a sideline in crime (Samuel L. Jackson.) 

Philip Baker Hall’s performance, as this world-weary, frequently-smoking older guy, is the best part of the film by far. It’s one of those instances of a longtime character actor getting to take center stage and making the most of it. 

Hard Eight movie
Image: Rysher Entertainment

It was quite an era for casino-set movies, with Casino and Leaving Las Vegas both arriving in 1995 and Con Air crashing a plane into a Vegas casino later in 1997. It was the same era that a character in Swingers famously declared “you’ve gotta be nuts to shoot in a casino,” Anderson did plenty of just that. 

Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly both went on to become Anderson mainstays; Jackson at one point mentions that Sydney’s associates “Floyd Gondolli” and “Jimmy Gator,” which happened to be the names of the characters Hall played in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. PTA fans may also spot other actors in smaller parts like Philip Seymour Hoffman (with a prodigious mullet as a craps player) and Melora Walters. However, neither Jackson nor Paltrow was ever in another PTA movie again. 

Last year’s Paul Schrader movie The Card Counter, with Oscar Isaac, had a lot in common both visually and thematically, but otherwise, there aren’t many movies like Hard Eight these days. 

Watch Hard Eight

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Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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